I fell in love with the cinema of Mohammad Rasoulof when I saw Bé omid é didar/Good Bye (Iran, 2011) at the 2011 London Film Festival. For me this film was every bit as good, if not better, than the works by Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi that caught most/more public attention in terms of films from Iran at around that time.
I was then fortunate enough to see the remarkable Jazireh ahani/Iron Island (Iran, 2005) and Keshtzar haye sepid/The White Meadows (Iran, 2009) during a retrospective of Rasoulof and Panahi’s work at the British Film Institute last year.
So it was with great expectation that I went to see Manuscripts Don’t Burn at this year’s London Film Festival. And in many respects the film does not disappoint.
The film is about a writer, Kasra, played by an anonymous actor – since all who took part in the film must remain anonymous, apart from the director, of course, as a result of the danger in which they will be for taking part in this film – who has written an exposé about the murder of various writers in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s.
His manuscript, entitled The Uneventful Life of a Retired Teacher, is to be published clandestinely, except for the fact that the authorities are on to him and are searching for the titular piece of work – in his house and in the houses of those who work with him (publishers, other writers, poets).
Interestingly, however, the film is told predominantly from the perspective of those who are carrying out the investigation into Kasra’s manuscript. To this end, we follow two hitmen, Morteza and Khosrow, as they carry out searches, abduct individuals, torture and murder suspects and the like.
Since Rasoulof is, like Jafar Panahi, serving a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is by consequence an underground film, even if it predominantly eschews the handheld and improvised aesthetic of many ‘underground’ movies – such as Bahman Ghobadi’s Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).
That said, while the film does often look controlled and elegant, rather than filmed in a rush, Manuscripts… opens with, and continues for quite a while to show, images shot with a high shutter speed, which lends to the action that we see a sort of ‘digital jitter’ that does in fact suggest a hurried, ‘guerrilla’ aesthetic.
There is a nod, then, to the clandestine manner in which the film was shot, but Manuscripts… is aesthetically interesting because it spans the two trends that seem to predominate concerning films coming out of Iran. These are namely underground films along the lines of Persian Cats and others – films shot without permits, often made on the fly and, in Ghobadi’s case, on the streets, and genre films, like Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (Iran/Germany, 2010), more ‘official’/authorised films that seem to ‘hide’ subversive elements within more mainstream-seeming fare (suggestions in the muse-en-scène).
Manuscripts… is also politically interesting, because rarely will one have seen a film out of Iran that features such violence (even if still shot and carried out in a muted, unsensational tone), the drinking of alcohol, and, simply put, criticism of the authorities as they carry out their surveillance and torture in pursuit of the elusive manuscript.
The film is downbeat, pessimistic even, but also fearlessly defiant in this way. Even though, I have read, the film’s story is based on the real abduction of writers in 1995 (what unites many of the writers is their having all been on a bus to Armenia for a conference), Rasoulof nonetheless sets the film in the present: mobile phones seem ubiquitous and at one point a character, Kian, says that in the age of Facebook and Twitter no one is interested anymore in politics – a sentiment echoed when another writer, Forouzadeh, suggests that politics today means just living, the implication being that it does not mean protesting.
And yet, the deliberate digital jitter that we see so overtly for the opening section of the film (potentially it remains, but my eyes began not to see it anymore as the film progresses) suggests that this overtly political film is a result of the digital age, the age of Facebook and Twitter. And so Manuscripts… seems to be more upbeat than its characters about the possibility of and for change in the contemporary era.
Nonetheless, it is a guarded ‘upbeatness’ – for the film also ends in a loop, taking us back to the beginning of the film where the government hitmen run away from the scene of one of their murders.
The moment triggers several thoughts: is what I have seen real, or a hallucination? What takes place when? Have I utterly misunderstood the film? This hallucinatory quality suddenly instils a kind of fear or vertigo in the viewer, bringing out the feverish urgency, perhaps, of Rasoulof’s movie. It also unsettles our understanding of what is real and what is not, or of what happens when. This suggests the malleable nature of truth in societies that control all media outlets that help to form the consensual hallucination known as ‘the truth’. And it also suggests a sense of entrapment – for both the victims and the perpetrators of state crime.
What is more, the film ends with one of the hitmen walking away from the camera and into a crowd of people (before the credits tell us that no one is to be credited). This is the territory of Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1948).
But where in that film we see Ricci merge with the crowd to suggest that life is tough for people on the streets in post-war Italy, here we have a sense of conspiracy: whom can we trust if anyone on the streets might be coerced, for financial if not for ideological reasons, to become a murderer for the state?
Rasoulof’s film sets us in a panic, then – and we are not even sure that we have watched a ‘film’ proper because no one is credited. Manuscripts may not burn, but Manuscripts Don’t Burn burns passionately – and yet it seems indestructible, even if its life is mainly a digital file mainly to be pirated. Unafraid of complexity, Rasoulof has delivered another excellent, relevant and profound film.